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May/June 2006 Issue

COVER STORY:
God, Glory, Gold: Athletes Who Believe

By Karen Stiller

On one of the last days before the ice melted this spring in small-town Ontario, a boy breaks away from his shinny hockey game. One gloved hand tucked behind his back, he bends over and he is off — sort of. His friends laugh at his not-really-that-close imitation of the woman people are calling Canada’s greatest Olympian, Cindy Klassen.

Klassen, as those kids and every other Canadian now surely knows, is the fresh-faced Winnipeg woman who speed skated smack-dab into the middle of our collective radar screen at the Torino Olympics, five medals dangling around her neck.

Canadian Evangelicals sat up and paid attention. Media profiles and news stories often pointed out that Klassen is a committed Christian.

Maclean’s magazine noticed. In the span of a four-page March cover story, the Maclean’s writer said Klassen was “deeply devout” and a “voracious” reader of the Bible, among other traits like “quiet and humble.”

The reporting never sways far from what seems to be an enigma to Maclean’s: Klassen’s personal faith. They write: “Klassen will later say she awoke refreshed and confident this race day. And for more than any other event at these Games, she felt ‘at peace.’ She will also, at her gold medal news conference, tell reporters this about recovering from that terrible accident [2 1/2 years ago, Klassen was derailed by an injury that severed 12 tendons and an artery]: ‘I think my faith grew and I got to spend a lot of time with God. I think that helped me in my skating as well, just to be thankful to be given this gift to be able to speed skate.’” Maclean’s continues: “Such quotes rarely make it into sports stories, there being a desire not to mix church with the state of Canadian sport. But somehow this God thing seems key to explaining the core of Cindy Klassen.”

Indeed it does. And it’s not only Klassen who brings the “God thing” to the middle of the Canadian sports scene. She has counterparts in every sport in Canada, and at most levels of athletic prowess.

That God Thing

Most people know that retired speed skater Catriona LeMay Doan skates with faith, as do National Hockey League players Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames and Mike Fisher of the Ottawa Senators to name a few. Retired Senators coach Laurie Boschman says there is a “growing percentage of Evangelicals in the NHL.” It’s still a small number overall but, compared to 20 years ago, it’s heartening. Boschman now serves as chaplain to the Senators with Hockey Ministries International, a ministry to the NHL.

Pinball Clemons is a Christian and the coach of the Canadian Football League’s Toronto Argonauts, and Argos’ Jude St. John plays offensive left guard like a believer (which means trying to be better and harder and tougher than anyone else — but more to come on that).

The list goes on, and athletes themselves are often pleasantly surprised to hear about a Christian counterpart in another sport.

“I didn’t know Klassen was a Christian, but that’s wonderful to hear,” says St. John, a 2004 Grey Cup champion. “That’s always encouraging.”

It is encouraging, whether you cheer from the cushy depths of your armchair or actually go onto the field yourself. Successful professional athletes tend toward hero status pretty quickly in our society and maybe even more so in an Olympic year like this one — and it’s nice to have heroes who are both cool and Christian. Boschman also points out that, given the supremacy of hockey in Canada, a Christian player can have a major impact on young kids.

Steve Sellers is official chaplain of the National Sports Centre in Calgary, ground zero for winter sports training in Canada. He’s an accomplished athlete himself and served as a coach and chaplain at the Winter Games in Torino. He meets with athletes one-on-one and leads group Bible studies under the ministry of Athletes in Action (AIA), an organization “committed to using the language of sport to communicate the most powerful message of all.”

Sellers studies and prays with Cindy Klassen. “We talked about peaking spiritually [for the Olympics], as well as physically, and being ready for the intense media scrutiny you get. How do we make sure we are spiritually prepared for that opportunity?” Sellers thinks Klassen, who clearly excelled athletically, also did so spiritually. “I was proud of Cindy. She did a really good job of sharing her faith humbly.”

Worship with a Frisbee or a Puck

Far away from Calgary, and light-years away from Christian athletes praying at the Olympics, one member of the Bombing Mad Fatties, an ultimate Frisbee team in Toronto, is a little bit different from the rest.

She is Monica Kay, AIA’s campus director for the University of Toronto. She’s also great with a disc. Those two worlds come together as she practises, plays and tours with the team whose logo is a giant marijuana joint. “A good portion of them smoke up as part of their warm-up. I love them, but I’m different.”

The team quickly noticed the difference, and Kay had to pay her dues and then some to be accepted. She has gone from being ignored to nicknamed their “personal Jesus” and has brought in an AIA speaker to encourage them during a slump. “My purpose is to play to the glory of God every time and to serve my teammates. Part of it is wanting to worship God with your sport,” explains Kay.

She’s in good company.

Most Canadians know about Paul Henderson, the hockey goal-scorer who saved Canada in the ’72 Summit Series, and the faith that saved him a couple of years later.

Henderson is now the granddaddy of Christian athletes in Canada, speaking across the country and leading a ministry that equips leaders. Henderson says that, before he became a Christian, if he didn’t perform well he was “lower than a snake’s belly. The biggest difference for me [after becoming a Christian] was I didn’t have the incredible highs and lows. You don’t get so puffed up when you win. I just did my best. My attitude about everything changed.”

The Drug-Free Performance Enhancer

Far from dulling Henderson’s competitive edge, his Christian beliefs sharpened it. “God gives abilities, and your identity is found in Him. Fear and worry drain the strength out of you. As an athlete, once you understand that, you can say, ‘Okay, let’s go out there and have a great time.’ You do better. You don’t tense up.”

It doesn’t mean you always win, far from it, but it is an integration of the spiritual life with the physical self at its most sublime, especially for those relying on physical performance and highly developed athletic skill in their chosen sport or career.

A living faith, says Steve Sellers, actually helps athletes relax before a performance. “If you go to the line and who you are as a person is wrapped up in it, you have to succeed or you will be less as a person. That’s a lot of pressure. And that’s why people get so nervous. When you get that from God instead, it just adds to your performance.”

Faith impacts how Serge Payer, who was raised near Ottawa and plays centre with the Florida Panthers, mentally prepares for a game. “It can be a stressful business that we’re in. To know that it’s in God’s hand and that, if I go out there and do my best, the results will be taken care of by the Lord — that’s the beauty of the Christian faith,” says Payer.

Kimberley Amirault is director of sports psychology at Calgary’s National Sports Centre and she has observed this phenomenon in Christian athletes. “It’s that unconditional support that helps them feel that, regardless of the outcome, the foundation of who they are as a person remains constant. We call it your ‘ideal performance state.’ You are aware of everything but distracted by nothing, relaxed but energized,” explains Amirault. “They use everything they have to stay centred and be at peace. People who are more religious bring themselves and their beliefs to their performance.”

Steve Kearns played for six years in the CFL with the BC Lions and Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Now he is on staff with AIA and volunteers as a chaplain for the Tiger-Cats, Toronto Argonauts and the Toronto Raptors basketball team. “Knowing that God is in control allows you to go out and just do your best. You are free to do the best you can, try hard, practise hard and play hard, and that’s all you can control,” says Kearns.

That bit of good news is front and centre in the Bible studies and pre-game chapels that Kearns offers to interested players, including Jude St. John.

Better, Harder, Stronger

“I’ve never played the game without my faith,” says St. John. “I would hope that Christian athletes would do what they do harder and better than anyone else does. If that means they are in a sport like football where there is hitting, I would hope they hit harder than anyone,” he says. “When I go against another Christian player, we go tooth and nail against each other. But when the last whistle blows, we take each other’s hands, kneel down and pray together.”

More often than not, St. John is praying with an American-born player. That’s one thing he’s keenly aware of in the CFL: the guys most comfortable showing their Christianity are not Canadian. They are the Americans playing in Canada.

“I think, generally speaking, the American athletes have more respect for Christianity than the Canadians do. If you’re a member of AIA in the CFL, you probably have an easier time of it than in other sports.” St. John believes this national difference is partly because “as a country, we seem to be adamant about being a secular society and Canadians seem to be much more private about faith issues.”

And some think the Canadian Church does not use Christian athletes — or sports — as well as it could to reach out into that society.

Is the Church a Good Team Player

“No, the Canadian Church does not use Christian athletes effectively,” sighs Bob Johnston, director of SU Sportz, the newly hatched sports ministry of Scripture Union Canada. SU Sportz brings staff and equipment into a community to partner with the local church in sports outreach. The vision of SU Sportz is to help Christians grasp the potential of sports for outreach and to equip them to do it well.

“The Church usually uses the Christian athlete to serve the Christians in the Church. My heart is to use Christian athletes to reach their community. It’s fine to have Pinball come to your church, but what if you use Pinball to come into the community on behalf of your church?”

Johnston adds that when the Church does engage with athletes, it needs to do it with care. It is very easy to see a successful athlete as a poster child to make our own faith seem less, well, dorky, instead of seeing the athlete as another believer in need of service, discipleship and love from the Church.

“Every church in Canada will want Cindy Klassen to come and speak. That’s not fair for Cindy. If every church in Canada started praying for her to influence her fellow team members, now that would be something,” says Johnston.

Laurie Boschman echoes this concern. “I find that the Church is sometimes almost too willing to get these players to come and speak instead of investing time in helping them grow,” he says. “They’re just like you and me. For some of them, it’s a big thing to say publicly, ‘I believe in Jesus.’ ” When they do say it, though, it might not be met with the eye-rolling that some of us might receive. That’s a good thing.

Johnston’s advice: pray for athletes and coaches, and support the budding athletes within the Church, equipping people involved at every level of sports in Canada to be “athletic influencers” for Christ. And if a church is not already doing it, consider using sports as a focal point for reaching out and sharing faith stories. You may bring kids to a field first and then, later, when the time is right, into a church building.

That sounds just about right to Paul Henderson. “Sports is probably one of the most under-utilized tools in Canadian churches,” he says. “And it’s so easy. You invite the kids in, teach them good skills and then you link that to the gospel.”

It works, believes Henderson, because everyone loves to play. “To this day, I think there’s just something about getting a good sweat on. It feels good.”

Most Christians have seen the movie Chariots of Fire or at least heard the line of famous runner Eric Liddell: “God made me fast and when I run I feel His pleasure.” The line was actually made up for the movie, but the feeling jives with Christian athletes.

And they say it should be real for everyone, no matter what the calling. A gift that Christian athletes bring to the Church, and the world, is a hard-won skill and love of what they do that appears to be both released and anchored by their personal faith.

It is an intersection between creed, calling, salvation and skill that is even more powerful when athletes, like Klassen and what seems to be an increasing number of others, are willing to go public with their faith. It’s certainly not exclusive to the speed skating track, the football field or the hockey rink.

But when it is found there, it is awesome.

Karen Stiller of Port Perry, Ont., regularly writes features for Faith Today, where she is also associate editor.

Other Articles
May/June 2006 Issue

Cover Story
God, Glory, Gold: Athletes Who Believe

Featured Articles
The Missional Church: Getting Back to the Core of Our Identity

Helping Congregations Be More Missional

Where Does This "Missional Church" Talk Come From?

Being Neighbourly, Being Missional

From the Editor
Our Cover and More

The Gathering Place
The Ottawa Manifesto

   
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